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Investments required in growing and ripening

Huge losses can be avoided

With a domestic market of 11 million tons, China represents a huge market for bananas. The largest part of available produce, 93 percent, is grown in China itself. However, cooperation in the chain is weak, leading to relatively large losses. China annually loses 12 billion Euro’ worth of fruit and vegetables, a big chunk of which could be prevented with small, but well-placed investments. Willem Kokkeel of Eurasia Connection and Frits Popma of Popma Fruit Expertise discuss possibilities open to the sector. According to both, there is much to gain in the Chinese sector, in particular with regard to growing and ripening.

"The bulk of domestic cultivation is disqualified in relation to the import," says Willem. "But I refuse to believe that nearly the entire 11 million-ton yield is substandard. In any case, we want to help them improve quality." Frits Popma adds that it’s not a matter of imposing Western European standards on the Chinese. "People realize that China must change, but we must keep in mind that the whole thing is still in its infancy.” Referring to the decades it took Europe to master the art of banana ripening, he notes: “We need to give them time to initiate their own developments, not plague them with outside advice."

Ripening not standard practice
The loss of quality that begins during cultivation, continues after harvest. "Packing centres are sometimes hard to reach, and many bananas arrive in the warehouses already damaged," Willem explains. "Once there, the fruits are often mishandled, causing additional damage." Furthermore, the ripening of bananas isn’t yet standard practice, resulting in supermarkets displaying a mix of ripe and unripe bananas. "But the quality of the banana itself is the most important issue. We can improve much during the production and transport, thus limiting the damage. Off course we could ripen bananas in a modern way, using modern ripening facilities, but we’re no banana hospital. We can only try to keep up the quality as much as possible."

Frits Popma mainly focuses on the links in the chain that follow cultivation. His expertise lies in advising ripeners and retailers. "Supermarkets often have no idea what percentage of their perishable goods is discarded at the end of the day, or sold cheaply," says Frits. "This isn’t just the case in China. Many European retailers lack this knowledge. Certainly in a big market like China, the losses quickly run into millions of dollars. With a small investment, the percentage can be drastically reduced."

Wrong boxes
Even when the ripening of bananas is part of everyday operations, many mistakes are being made. "Many Chinese operators cultivate a short-term philosophy: they want to make money fast," says Frits, exposing what to him is the root of the problem. "In order to reduce costs, they invest in the wrong boxes for ripening, as the box is only used a few days." A good box costs about 1.25 Euro, which many handlers might consider costly. However, a good box, one that provides excellent protection for the bananas during transport, is essential. "In fact, a banana box is a miniature-sized ripening cell."

Not enough ripening cells

What is particularly striking is the rapidly growing shortage of ripening facilities in China. The share of retail in banana sales is currently estimated at around five percent. In the next few years it will likely swell to about ten percent. Although these are relatively small percentages, they’re in fact equivalent to 865,000 boxes per week - 1.9 million in the near future. For those bananas, modern ripening cells are needed, but China has only 300 available cells and there are few signs that this will change any time soon. Therefore, a shortage of over 200 cells may well balloon to about 900 in a few short years.

Errors in construction

But in the construction of ripening cells, there’s ample room for improvement as well. "The Chinese are travelling around the world to watch and learn," says Frits. "Incredibly, they take pictures, and then shape a ripening room on the basis of the photos. But they forget essential things." Frits remembers a big player on the market, who developed a ripening system after taking a few snapshots. His contraption, however, was doomed to fail as the temperature sensors were installed incorrectly. For both cooling and ripening, two temperatures are vital: the present temperature of the bananas in the cell, and the temperature of the air blown into it. "But if you connect these sensors, or even place them next to each other, nothing will happen. You’ll be left with 20,000 Euro worth’ of bananas which must be eventually sold for a lower price."

More information:
Willem Kokkeel
Eurasia Connection

Frits Popma
Popma Fruit Expertise

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